How Is the Success of Belarusian IT Industry Related to Higher Education System Development?

Cooperation between industry professionals and academics is nearly universal. Industry leaders representing various scientific fields work together with educational systems in order to find highly qualified young staff for their companies. In this respect, the Republic of Belarus is a particularly interesting case.

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The aricle was written for NRU HSE’s journal Higher Education in Russia and Beyond. I acted as guest editor of the issue dedicated to contemporary computer science education in Russia and former Soviet republics.

My authorship was formally presented only in two articles but actually I worked on seven more. Mostly exactly as editor, nevertheless some articles consists of my text more than a half. I suppose, their appearance in my blog will be rather honest. 

This one is full mine with expert’s comments of IBA Group staff. I’m really greatful to them and especially to Alexey Tagirov. 

Belarusian IT industry products, such as World of Tanks, Viber and MSQRD, are well-known all over the world; applications released by Apalon are continuously high-positioned in App Store, Google Play and Amazon Marketplace. Besides that, Belarus is one of the world’s leaders in terms of IT outsourcing. The country’s IT companies rank high in global ratings. Six Belarus-based developers (Ciklum, EPAM, IBA Group, Intetics, Itransition and Bell Integrator) were ranked in the 2016 Global Outsourcing 100 by IAOP. In 2015, ten Belarusian IT companies were mentioned in the Software 500 rating published by Software Magazine, one of the most influential periodicals in the world of global hi-tech industry.

At the same time, unlike the country’s IT industry, its educational system — in particular, in the sphere of IT education — is not that famous or successful. We cannot say that Belarusian IT education is of low quality, of course, but it has not achieved the same success as the country’s professional industry.

Belarusian State University (BSU), for example, is the country’s only higher education institution listed among 978 other HEIs in THE World University Rankings 2016- 2017. BSU ranked 801+. The results of many international rankings show that former Soviet countries cannot really be called global higher education leaders. However, speaking of HEIs located in the Community of Independent States (CIS) and Belarus’ other neighboring countries, THE World University Rankings 2016-2017 also included 2 Lithuanian, 2 Latvian, 2 Estonian, 4 Ukrainian, 9 Polish and 24 Russian HEIs.

THE BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings 2016 top-200 lists Lithuanian, Polish, Estonian and Russian HEIs but none from Belarus.

QS ranking offers similar results. Only 2 Belarusian HEIs were listed in QS World University Rankings 2016-2017: BSU (ranking 354) and Belarusian National Technical University (ranking 701+), while neighboring countries were better represented (2 HEIs from Estonia, 4 from Lithuania, 6 from the Ukraine, 6 from Poland, and 22 from Russia). In QS University Rankings EECA 2016 the country’s best HEI (BSU) was listed 39th — below 10 Russian, 3 Polish, 2 Estonian, 1 Ukrainian and 1 Lithuanian universities.

Belarusian IT education can hardly be called a driving force of the country’s academic community. 1 Estonian, 5 Polish and 7 Russian universities are listed in the top-500 of QS Computer Science Ranking but no single Belarusian one. THE Computer Science Ranking Top-100 includes only 2 Russian universities.

Naturally, the results of international rankings do not allow us to judge definitively on the quality of higher education but at least let us draw some conclusions on HEIs’ visibility and academic performance.

Speaking of the latter, in 2006-2016, scholars with a Belarusian affiliation published 1 314 Scopus-cited papers of the following types: Article, Article in Press, Book, Book chapter, Conference Paper, Review. Just to compare: during the same period there were 1 838 Latvian, 2 405 Estonian, 2 858 Lithuanian, 9 784 Ukrainian, 26 929 Russian and 36 582 Polish papers published.

Belarusian higher education system does not compare favorably to those of its neighbors. Therefore, it is only reasonable to ask: is the success of Belarusian IT industry related to the performance of the national higher education system? Or is it defined by totally other factors whatsoever?

In order to answer these questions, we can identify several key factors of IT industry development and try to assess their impact by analyzing expert statements by the representatives of IBA Group, winner of 2016 EOA Awards. IBA is listed among The Global Outsourcing 100 and Software 500. The company also has first-hand knowledge of the national higher education due its cooperation with BSU, Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics (BSUIR) and Francisk Skorina Gomel State University (GSU).

Soviet IT System Legacy

Ivan Piletski (PhD in physics and math, Chief Specialist of the Department of Data Processing IBA IT Park and Scientific Director of the joint laboratory of IBA-BSUIR) believes that the basis for IT industry development in Belarus was laid in the Soviet era. “Even back in the Soviet times information technologies were a kind of “trademark” for the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Specialized IT departments and faculties were created at leading Belarusian universities more than half a century ago. In 1964, a specialized HEI — Minsk Institute for Radioelectronics (now BSUIR) was founded”, — says Piletsky.

“IBA founders (established in 1993) included, besides IBM (which left in 1998), the country’s major IT organizations — all 9 Higher Education in Russia and Beyond / №4(10) / Winter 2016 going back to the Soviet times, such as Research Institute for Electronic Computing Machines (known by its Russian abbreviation NII EVM) and Minsk Plant of Calculating Machines named after S. Ordzhonikidze.

After the collapse of the USSR IT industry in Belarus ceded ground. However, it was approximately at the same time that a number of companies now famous in Central and Eastern Europe were founded, including EPAM, IBA and — later — Itransition, System Technologies and others, which began working in IT outsourcing and became a king of “life safer” for the country’s IT specialists, many of whom were then basically unemployed. That was probably the moment when Belarusian IT started to work in a new direction, namely IT outsourcing for the West, and when the industry’s revival — which could also be called a birth of a “new formation” of Belarusian IT industry — began”.

Support from the State

Inna Igontova, IBA Head of Corporate Marketing Department, agrees that the state has contributed a lot to the development of national IT industry: “Belarusian IT is a national brand, it shapes our country’s image. It is one of the few industries which, being a global exporter, managed to keep the volume of output and output growth at the same level despite the global economic crisis. Our nation’s economic development has to rely mainly on intellectual resources, which Belarus has always been rich in, but poor in natural resources.”

Belarusian IT sector has indeed been receiving substantial support from the state. In the early 2000s, discussions about establishing a kind of local Silicon Valley began and in 2006, Hi-Tech Park (HTP) was opened. Its residents are free from corporate taxes and customs duties, while individual income tax rate is 9% for private persons (vs 13% in the rest of the country) and 16% for self-employed entrepreneurs.

Low Salaries in Other Sectors

According to Belarus National Statistics Committee (Belstat), face gross average wage for January–September 2016 was 713.9 Belarusian rubles (about USD 373), while in the IT sector this indicator equaled 3 504.6 Belarusian rubles (about USD 1 834.6), i.e., five times more than national average. IT is the most well-paid sector in Belarus.

Is it reasonable to assume that Belarusians, whatever their educational background is, try to find employment in IT companies and that in the end quantity becomes quality? In any case, IBA representatives disagree that this might be the major reason for the industry’s success. “IT industry is indeed one of the most attractive sectors for Belarusians looking for a job. However, it would not be right to think that the industry is thriving due to lack of competition in other sectors,” – says Piletsky. He continues: “No one — be it in Belarus, Russia or in the West — will just offer you a big salary. HTP residents’ main customers are Western companies. IT industry works for specific customers, on specific tasks”.

Higher Education

Belarusian higher education system bears a substantial Soviet legacy, so many people believe it is rather outdated. Belarus only joined the Bologna Process in 2015, for example, while Russia did it in 2003, Ukraine — in 2005, and Latvia and Lithuania — in 1999. Belarus is one of the few post-Soviet states where the system of obligatory job placement for HEI graduates is still in place. After graduation those whose education was paid for by the state have to work for two years for their alma mater’s partner organizations (public or private, depending on their field of study). Moreover, university curricula feature a lot of non-core subjects, such as national ideology, history of universities and higher education, etc.

Still, IBA representatives do not fully agree. They believe that the fact that the country has joined the Bologna Process is indicative of national higher education system’s competitive ability. Piletsky wonders: “What’s bad about the system of obligatory job placement, when young professionals get a chance to apply and multiply their knowledge instead of losing skills while looking for a job?” He continues: “With the system of obligatory job placement young professionals get guaranteed employment and professional experience. Non-core courses are indeed often part of the curriculum. This can be regarded as extra workload, which is not good and which students are not happy with. On the other hand, no knowledge can ever be useless. It is necessary to optimize university curricula but through a balanced approach”.

Olga Bogdel, IBA Head of Human Resources and Staff Adaptation Department, believes that the company’s demand for young professional is fully covered by Belarusian HEIs: “Our cooperation with the country’s leading HEIs includes establishing joint labs, training students, providing HEIs with Internet equipment, providing training in the use of new technologies and products at a discounted price, organizing joint workshops, participating in the educational process, doing trainings for HEIs’ academic staff, etc. As part of the cooperation with BSU, BSUIR and GSU IBA Group has founded 7 computer labs, opened teaching and research labs, founded Academic Center for Technological Competencies at BSUIR, where IBM technologies and products are taught, and launched the joint BSU-IBA Center. We support BSU’s membership in SAP University Alliances — a global partnership program between SAP and HEIs. All of this helps students broaden the knowledge they acquired during their studies”.

IBA representatives largely do not agree with a negative view of Belarusian higher education. To counter Scopus data, they cite the results of international coding competitions, such as ACM/ICPC. Belarusians traditionally rank high in such competitions: for example, BSU team finished 2nd in 2012-2013, 14th in 2014, 15th in 2015, while BSUIR team took the 3rd and 17th places in 2012 and 2016 respectively. The total number of participating teams varies between 120 and 128.

Still, IBA leadership acknowledges the fact that there are some problems: “On the whole, our HEIs are of rather high quality though not devoid of problems, just like in other CIS countries. One of the main issues is ageing academic staff. It is yet unclear how this could be solved in the current situation, given the fact that IT professionals who could teach prefer working in the industry due to differences in salary levels. This is why IT companies, which are interested in new, highly qualified young staff, participate in the educational process. We spend a lot of efforts on this. We believe that the situation with staff turnover here in Belarus is no worse than at our neighbors”.

On the whole, the question of cooperation between higher education and professional industry is rather broad and requires extended research before one can draw substantiated conclusions. Nevertheless, Belarus is an interesting case because it has managed to develop world-level IT products and create its own “Silicon Valley” despite the fact that it has no MIT, Stanford or Harvard.

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